Chinese immigrants and Mexican Americans in the age of westward expansion

Like Native Americans, Mexican Americans and Chinese immigrants suffered harsh consequences due to relentless westward expansion by whites in the nineteenth century. 


  • In the nineteenth century, Mexican American, Chinese, and white populations of the United States collided as white people moved farther west in search of land and riches.
  • Neither Chinese immigrants nor Mexican Americans could withstand the assault on their rights by the tide of white settlers. Ultimately, both ethnic groups retreated into urban enclaves, where their language and traditions could survive.
  • Las Gorras Blancas, the White Caps, were a rebel group of Mexican Americans who fought back against the appropriation of their land by white settlers; in 1889 and 1890, they burned farms, homes, and crops.

Manifest Destiny and minorities

As white Americans pushed west, they not only collided with Native American tribes but also with Mexican Americans and Chinese immigrants. Mexican Americans in the Southwest had been given the opportunity to become American citizens at the end of the Mexican-American War, but their status was markedly second-class. Chinese immigrants arrived en masse during the California Gold Rush and numbered in the hundreds of thousands by the late 1800s; the majority lived in California, working menial jobs.
These distinct cultural and ethnic groups strove to maintain their rights and way of life in the face of persistent racism, but the large number of white settlers and government-sanctioned land acquisitions left them at a profound disadvantage. Ultimately, both groups withdrew into homogenous communities in which their language and culture could survive.

Chinese immigrants in the American West

The initial arrival of Chinese immigrants to the United States began as a slow trickle in the 1820s; barely 650 Chinese immigrants lived in the United States by the end of 1849. But as gold rush fever swept the country, Chinese immigrants—like others—were attracted to the notion of quick fortunes. By 1852, over 25,000 Chinese immigrants had arrived in the United States, and by 1880, over 300,000 Chinese people were living in the United States, most in California.
Although they had dreams of finding gold, many Chinese immigrants instead found employment building the first transcontinental railroad. Some even traveled as far as the South, where they helped farm former cotton plantations after the Civil War.
Building the railroads was dangerous and backbreaking work. On the western railroad line, Chinese migrants—along with other nonwhite workers—were often given the most difficult and dangerous jobs of all.
Read one description of the construction of the railroad in 1867:
"The cars now (1867) run nearly to the summit of the Sierras. . . . four thousand laborers were at work—one-tenth Irish, the rest Chinese. They were a great army laying siege to Nature in her strongest citadel. The rugged mountains looked like stupendous ant-hills. They swarmed with Celestials, shoveling, wheeling, carting, drilling and blasting rocks and earth, while their dull, moony eyes stared out from under immense basket-hats, like umbrellas. At several dining camps we saw hundreds sitting on the ground, eating soft boiled rice with chopsticks as fast as terrestrials could with soup-ladles. Irish laborers received thirty dollars per month (gold) and board; Chinese, thirty-one dollars, boarding themselves. After a little experience the latter were quite as efficient and far less troublesome."
—Albert D. Richardson, Beyond the Mississippi
Several thousand of these immigrants booked their passage to the United States using what was known as a "credit-ticket," an arrangement in which their passage was paid in advance by US businessmen to whom the immigrants were then indebted for a period of work. Most Chinese immigrants were men; few Chinese women or children traveled to the United States in this time period. As late as 1890, less than five percent of the Chinese population in the United States was female. Regardless of gender, few Chinese immigrants intended to stay permanently in the United States, although many were forced to do so when they realized they lacked the financial resources to return home.
A drawing shows a group of Chinese laborers building a railroad. Several of the workers are conversing with one another.
Drawing depicting Chinese laborers building a railroad. Image credit: OpenStax
Prohibited by law in 1790 from obtaining US citizenship through naturalization, Chinese immigrants faced harsh discrimination and violence from American settlers in the West. Despite hardships like the special tax that Chinese miners had to pay to take part in the Gold Rush and their subsequent forced relocation into Chinese districts, these immigrants continued to arrive in the United States seeking a better life for the families they left behind.
The Chinese community banded together in an effort to create social and cultural centers in cities such as San Francisco. They sought to provide services ranging from social aid to education, places of worship, and health facilities to their fellow Chinese immigrants. But, as Chinese workers began competing with white Americans for jobs in California cities, anti-Chinese discrimination increased. In the 1870s, white Americans formed “anti-coolie clubs”—coolie was a racial slur directed towards people of Asian descent—through which they organized boycotts of Chinese-produced products and lobbied for anti-Chinese laws. Some protests turned violent. In 1885 in Rock Springs, Wyoming, tensions between white and Chinese immigrant miners erupted into a riot, resulting in over two dozen Chinese immigrants being murdered and many more injured.
Racism and discrimination became law. The new California constitution of 1879 denied naturalized Chinese citizens the right to vote or hold state employment. Additionally, in 1882, the US Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was the first significant law restricting immigration into the United States. It restricted immigration from China for ten years. The ban was later extended on multiple occasions until its repeal in 1943.

Mexican Americans in the American West

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War in 1848, promised US citizenship to the nearly 75,000 Mexicans living in what had just become the American Southwest. Approximately 90 percent of them accepted the offer and chose to stay in the United States.
Despite promises made in the treaty, these Mexican Americans quickly lost their land to white settlers who displaced the rightful landowners—by force if necessary. Mexican Americans in California—or Californios, as they came to be known—found that their demands for legal redress mostly fell upon deaf ears. In some instances, judges and lawyers would permit legal cases to proceed through an expensive legal process only to the point where Mexican American landowners who insisted on holding their ground were rendered penniless for their efforts.
Much like Chinese immigrants, Mexican American citizens were relegated to the worst-paying jobs under the worst working conditions. They worked as peóns (manual laborers similar to slaves), vaqueros (cattle herders), and cartmen, transporting food and supplies, on the cattle ranches that white landowners possessed, or they undertook the most hazardous mining tasks.
A painting shows a Mexican vaquero mounted on a horse in front of a large steer, which he has lassoed with a rope.
Painting depicting a Mexican American vaquero. Image credit: OpenxStax
In a few instances, frustrated Mexican American citizens fought back against the white settlers who dispossessed them. In 1889 to 1890 in New Mexico, several hundred Mexican Americans formed las Gorras Blancas—the White Caps—to try to reclaim their land and intimidate white Americans in order to prevent further land seizures. White Caps conducted raids of white farms, burning homes, barns, and crops to express their growing anger and frustration. However, their actions never resulted in any fundamental changes. Several White Caps were captured, beaten, and imprisoned, and others eventually gave up, fearing harsh reprisals against their families. Some White Caps adopted a more political strategy, gaining election to local offices throughout New Mexico in the early 1890s, but growing concerns over the potential impact upon the territory’s quest for statehood led several citizens to heighten the repression of the movement.
Other laws passed in the United States intended to deprive Mexican Americans of their heritage as much as their lands. "Sunday Laws" prohibited “noisy amusements” such as bullfights, cockfights, and other cultural gatherings common to Mexican American communities at the time. “Greaser Laws” permitted the imprisonment of any unemployed Mexican American on charges of vagrancy.
In California and throughout the Southwest, a massive influx of Anglo-American settlers overran the Mexican American populations that had been living there for generations. Despite being US citizens with full rights, Mexican Americans quickly found themselves outnumbered, outvoted, and—ultimately—outcast. Corrupt state and local governments favored white settlers in land disputes. Mining companies and cattle barons discriminated against Mexican Americans—as they did against Chinese workers—in terms of pay and working conditions. In growing urban areas such as Los Angeles, barrios, neighborhoods of working-class homes, grew more isolated from white neighborhoods. Mexican Americans, like Native Americans and Chinese immigrants, suffered the fallout of white settlers’ relentless push west.

What do you think?

The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first significant law restricting immigration into the United States. Why do you think the US government singled out Chinese immigrants in particular for exclusion?
How does the experience of Mexican Americans in the West compare to the experience of African Americans in the South in the late nineteenth century? In what ways were their lives similar? In what ways were their lives different?
What strategies did Chinese immigrants and Mexican Americans use to resist discrimination and build strong communities?


This article is a modified derivative of "The Impact of Expansion on Chinese Immigrants and Hispanic Citizens" by OpenStaxCollege, CC BY 4.0.
The modified article is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.